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For Jim the turning point came in January when it became obvious that, in his words, “They'd played their hand. And their hand was retaining the four hometown boys: Olerud, Edgar, Moyer, Wilson.”
For Gavin it began the previous off-season when the Mariners didn't sign someone who could drive in runs. But it solidified itself last July 31st when, again, they stood pat. In October he made it official: The Seattle Mariners were no longer his team.
These two men — both of whom I know, but who don't know each other — are about as unscientific a sampling as you can get, but they are symbolic of a growing, gnawing dissatisfaction with the way the Mariners ballclub is being run. Season ticket sales are down by 3500. Attendance through the first eight games is lower than in any season since Safeco opened.
In one sense, this backlash is surprising. The Mariners tied a Major League record with 116 wins in 2001, then won 93 games last season. Why is everyone running away?
In another sense, it's not surprising at all. Over the last ten years the Mariners have employed some of the most talented players in baseball history (Griffey, A-Rod, Randy) on some teams with great role players (Edgar, Buhner, Tino, Jamie, Omar) and yet never managed to see the inside of a World Series. The “Two outs...so what?” magic of 2001 became the “Two outs...you want some garlic fries?” doldrums of 2002. Key basehits dried up. Bret Boone and Ichiro became mortal. Mike Cameron jumped the shark. Jeff Cirillo got eaten by it.
“They just didn’t have a guy with that something that gets you on the edge of your seat,” Gavin says. “Last year, it was just…” His body collapses to demonstrate. “…blah.”
“I read we led the league in sacrifice flies,” Jim adds with a laugh. “Doesn't surprise me. It's a very boring way to score runs.”
That's the word that keeps returning when discussing the Mariners: Boring. Dull. Management has cultivated a polite, pro-family atmosphere at the ballpark, where polite, pro-family players play, and the result is the baseball equivalent of “The Andy Williams Show.” The M's are the oldest team in the majors, and, like most old folks, they like to walk (.350 on-base percentage, 2nd in the majors last season); they just don't have much oomph (.419 slugging, ranked 14th). Opponents hit 18 more homeruns at Safeco last season, while the M's 64 Safeco homeruns were the fewest by a home team save the Devil Rays (63), Brewers (62), Pirates (61), Tigers (61), and Padres (59). Not exactly a who's who of baseball excitement.
Meanwhile, young position players who might add excitement can't be found. The farm system is dry.
“The one we heard about was that Australian kid,” Jim says. “He's hurt. Jamal Strong — that speedy guy — he's hurt. Separated shoulder. And other than that I couldn't tell you the name of single position player in the Mariners farm system. And I read this stuff all the time.”
Jim is 50, grew up in New Jersey, and began following the Yankees during their most fallow period in the mid-to-late 1960s. He moved to Seattle in the early '80s and slowly became an M's fan. A limousine driver with salt-and-pepper hair and an amused, booming voice, he has no trouble placing blame for their current crisis. The payroll is fine with him — $92 million is a chunk of change — he just doesn't think Pat Gillick spent it wisely. Too much for the likes of Sasaki, Wilson, the bench players. This off-season Gillick didn't take into account the new frugality around baseball.
“By late January,” Jim says, “it was obvious that the Dan Wilsons of the world were getting contracts like $750,000 a year. Maybe a million tops. And we give him two years, seven million.
“What's really disturbing,” he adds, “is we're going to have the same team next year. Cameron will be a free agent, Edgar will be a free agent. But we're committed to every other position player.”
Gavin, 32, is a software test engineer, and on looks alone would probably be banned from Safeco. His close-cropped hair is sometimes dyed blue, and his body is covered with tattoos. But his defection should be more worrisome to M's management. Jim still follows the team, just with more interest in the boxscores of the Yankees and Red Sox and Giants. But Gavin, a Seattlite who suffered with the M's from the beginning, is now rooting for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and it's not just because of Pat Gillick. It's the attitude Mariners management displayed over the past few years, which he describes in the following fashion: “We're competitive. We might make it into the playoffs. And even if we don't, oh well, we're still drawing huge crowds.”
No doubt fans will return if the M's get hot this season; but, for thinking fans, doubts will remain. Didn't they start out hot last season and fade? And if they don't fade, isn't the specter of the New York Yankees looming in the post-season?
And if, by some miracle, the M's get past the Yankees and make it to the World Series?
“I'd watch them,” Gavin says, after a thoughtful pause. “But I wouldn't watch them with the same intensity. Because I'm done. Done done done with the Mariners.
“It's kind of like your hometown, you know? You always miss your hometown. So I'll always love the Mariners. But the organization, as it is now, is not worth the fan base it has.”
—originally published in The Grand Salami